Richmond County school system lags behind Georgia peers

Low-income students fare worse on federal AYP benchmarks

The Richmond County school system, taken as a whole, does a below-average job of getting students in low-income families to read and do math on grade-level, state data released earlier this month show.

Georgia released final 2010-11 “adequate yearly progress” results Nov. 2, taking into account summer retake scores and appeals to preliminary results announced in July. The final data show that of Rich­mond County’s 54 Title I schools – which receive extra federal money be­cause they have high concentrations of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – 24 made AYP. That's 44.4 percent.

Every Richmond County school, except John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, is considered a Title I school.

The Augusta Chronicle reported earlier this month that Richmond County was last among a comparison group of 12 Georgia school systems that have similar student populations in terms of overall percentage of schools making the tough AYP benchmarks. Looking at only Title I schools among that same group of districts, Richmond County is 10th, with higher percentages of Title I schools making AYP than Muscogee County (12 of 32 schools, 37.5 percent) and DeKalb County (31 of 91 schools, 34.1 percent).

But statewide, 69.5 percent of Title I schools made AYP, a rate that far exceeds Richmond County’s.

Acting Superintendent James Whitson said improving students’ learning, not their test scores, is his focus.

“Test scores are what they are. They are a measure of a single performance on a single day,” he said. “We are trying to shift our learning target. That’s a cultural thing. It takes time to do that.”

Richmond County’s comparatively low results on the AYP benchmarks are a concern, but they are not paramount, Whitson said.

“Any time you have a measurement that is used statewide or nationally, we want our students to be competitive,” he said. “But just being competitive on a standardized test is not the measure of our success. Can our students transfer the skills and knowledge they have learned to an unfamiliar context?”

AYP is a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, which requires that a certain percentage of a school’s students -- as well as subgroups such as racial or ethnic, students with disabilities, and those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – pass grade-level reading and math tests. That benchmark rises to 100 percent by the 2013-14 school year.

Criticism of No Child Left Behind in general, and AYP in particular, has mounted nationwide.

Because of that, along with Congress failing to reauthorize the law since it first came up for renewal in 2007, the U.S. Department of Education has allowed states to apply for waivers from AYP requirements in exchange for assurances that more students will be ready for postsecondary education or a career after graduating high school.

Georgia was one of 11 states to take the first opportunity to apply for a waiver, earlier this month, and a decision is expected by mid-January.

In Georgia, AYP is based largely on such standardized exams as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test and Georgia High School Graduation Test.

Richmond County system administrators say they are working to improve the district’s standing. The focus this year is on improving literacy.

The more successful schools in Richmond County have integrated literacy skills across different classes, including math, science and social studies. The less successful ones have struggled to do so and, while they have generally had average to good results in reading, their math results have been well below state averages, data shows.

Whitson said this emphasis on literacy is not simply about helping students write better essays or comprehend what they read. Rather, he said, the goal is to give students a foundation to help them think on their own and explain that to other people, whether in writing, through digital communication or orally, in any number of life contexts.

“I think we are being innovative in how we’re thinking,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it is pervasive in our district at this point. One of the most difficult things we have to do is to unlearn some of the things that are not helping our students become the learners we want them to be.”

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